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Stalin's Legacy of Statelessness

The plight of southern Georgia's Meshketian minority illustrates the misery experienced by millions of displaced people in the former Soviet Union. Forcibly deported from Georgia to Central Asia by Joseph Stalin in 1944, they were subsequently evacuated from Uzbekistan by Soviet troops in 1989 when ethnic tension flared there. Today, hundreds of thousands of Meshketians reside unlawfully as "stateless persons" in other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, unable to secure basic rights despite the adoption of laws intended to protect them.

And the Meshketians are not alone. More than 9 million refugees, internally displaced persons, repatriates, deported peoples, ecological migrants, and others from across the former Soviet Union have been uprooted since 1989, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This figure does not include millions of others in the region who have migrated for economic reasons.

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Moreover, about 70 million former Soviet citizens live beyond the borders of the country of their ethnic origin. At least 20 million ethnic Russians live outside the Russian Federation, and more than 26 million non-Russians live in Russia. Given these demographics, the potential for further dislocations in the region is immense. Although the majority of these people are unlikely to move suddenly, the conditions that give rise to dislocations, including armed conflicts, human rights violations such as ethnic cleansing, economic underdevelopment, environmental disasters, and general failures of governance are increasingly endemic in the region.

Clearly, a systematic effort by the international community is required to address this crisis. Representatives of 77 governments and 27 international organizations met in Geneva during May to formulate a strategy. But the program of action adopted at Geneva is a lackluster wish list of general objectives, minus concrete projects or specific legal obligations to help prevent forced migration.

It declares, for example, that commonwealth states are "encouraged" to sign international refugee treaties and "should facilitate" the repatriation of deported peoples, such as the Meshketians. By omitting concrete commitments, the international community misses an important opportunity to promote the development of open societies in the region - perhaps the best strategy to prevent future causes of forced migration.

One such lost opportunity is the conference's failure to design legal protections for the roughly 500,000 people displaced by war in Chechnya. Existing international-refugee treaties limit coverage to refugees who are abroad with a "well-founded" fear of individualized persecution upon return. But the magnitude and nature of displacements caused by various conflicts in the former Soviet Union demand a broader concept that addresses existing realities in post-Soviet Eurasia.

Western European and other states, reluctant to create openings for criticism of their own restrictive asylum regimes, opposed the inclusion of a broadened refugee definition in the conference's final documents. Fear of such criticism also caused these governments to resist participation in the conference by nongovernmental organizations But NGOs, particularly those in the region, can help define clear and effective objectives, as well as monitor the implementation of such objectives in the future.

Follow-up activities after the May ceremonies may be of more consequence. For now, however, the conference appears to be another lost opportunity for reform. In the meantime, the Meshketians and others continue to suffer.

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